Magazine article Geographical

The Lakesiders

Magazine article Geographical

The Lakesiders

Article excerpt

Winnie Liesenfeld visits France where a flooded village has turned out to be a haven for passing birds

ROGER BUTARD, A RETIRED FARMER, is one of 64 residents from Nuisement aux Bois, a small village in the Champagne region of eastern France. In 1974, when the authorities chose to flood his home to create a reservoir, the Lac du Der Chantecoq, he resolutely stayed put, spending two isolated years without water or electricity. Though today, he no longer resents the decision to innundate the settlements. Now, at the age of 85, he lives on a large property in a village on the edge of Lac du Der. The lake by which he now lives has become a site of natural beauty and a haven for migratory birds.

In 1910 Paris experienced the worst flooding since 1685. As had happened so many times in past centuries, the River Seine expanded far over its banks on either side, wreaking havoc in central Paris, damaging thousands of homes. The government began building a number of storage dams so the flow of the Seine, as well as the Rivers Marne and Aube, which feed into it, could be controlled.

Though technically a storage dam, the Lac du Der is more like a huge lake with a concrete dyke around part of it. Locals refer to it as `the sea away from the sea'. It draws water from the River Marne via a 12-kilometre canal, holding water during the wet months to help prevent further flooding, and fills up the rivers during dry months. This ensures a reliable source of high-quality drinking water for Paris and helps maintain activities dependent on the rivers.

Butard says that when plans to build the reservoir in their area were announced, all the residents of the three villages were against the project. They protested, but were up against a tough administration. In the end they were overruled but managed to save a few sites, including the church of Champaubert. Built completely from wood in the regional style, the church was dissembled and resurrected near the edge of the reservoir. Known as the `lighthouse church' because of its steeple, which can be recognised from afar, it has become a symbol of the lake. Villagers refused an offer by an American who wanted to buy the church and have it rebuilt in the USA.

The Lac du Der is by far the largest reservoir in Europe with a surface area of 4,800 hectares and a maximum capacity of 350 million cubic metres. Although there are other similar storage dams in the region, it is arguably the most significant. Since its creation, 270 bird species can be found in the region at some point during the year, a staggering 50 per cent of all bird species in Europe.

Jean-Luc Balaguir, Director of the House of Birds and Fish, an interactive museum located on the western side of the lake, estimates that before the reservoir some 150 species of birds could be seen at some point during the year. Most of the birds in the area that weren't there before are migratory, and use the lake as a resting place on their way to and from wintering and summering grounds. To name just a few of the species, there are whooper swans, eiders, goosanders, and the very rare white-tailed eagle.

Migrant birds are flexible to some extent in the routes they take, according to Mike Toms of the British Trust for Ornithology. While they might not actively seek out new places, they can include ones they previously would have flown past, such as stopping at the Lac du Der.

While the variety of birds that can now be seen at the lake is enough to attract birdwatchers from neighbouring countries, the real star of the show, with a height of up to 1.2 metres and a wingspan of two metres, is Europe's biggest bird -- the common crane. It stops in the area before continuing on to Germany and Scandinavia to its breeding grounds or down south to Spain for the summer.

During migration, cranes fly in family groups -- an event which which attracts flocks of birdwatchers. The birds leave their nesting sites at dawn and head to nearby fields to feed for the rest of the day. …

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